Last night, before turning in for the evening, I scrolled through my Facebook feed. This is nearly always a mistake so close to bedtime, and yet, for whatever reason, I haven’t quite mastered the self discipline necessary to avoid the temptation. And sure enough, I discovered a post which caused a significant enough spike in my adrenalin level to keep me stewing well past my bedtime. The person who posted was lamenting the lack of engaging Episcopal sermons. A quick Google search had failed to serve up a sermon which adequately met the unspecified criteria my Facebook acquaintance had in mind as necessary in order for a sermon to be deemed “good.” The post ended with a rhetorical flourish, “But really. . . It shouldn’t be that difficult to find quality preaching. . . should it?”
Upon awaking this morning, I still had that question lodged in my head, and I did what I knew to be futile. I responded to the question. Here’s what I wrote:
So far this year, I have preached 36 out of 42 Sundays. Some sermons were “not-too-bad.” Some were serviceable. Some touched people’s lives. Some of them comforted folks in pain. Some of them challenged folks in their privilege. All of them represented my best efforts in any given week to be faithful to a biblical text, attentive to the world around us, sensitive to the issues resident within the parish, and adherent to my best (for now) understanding of Creedal Christianity. Oh, and I have 12 minutes each week to accomplish this, which means in parish ministry, preaching is an ongoing conversation between the text, the Tradition, the cultural context, parish concerns, and the preacher whilst doing our best to discern the voice of the Spirit within our midst.
The week-to-week quality of this homiletical conversation varies, I’m sure, but my hope is, over time, even the most sporadic attenders at the parish I serve hears “a good word from the Good Book under the Lordship of the Eternal Word.”
This was a long-winded way of saying, I’d hate to be judged about the quality of my preaching based on one 12 minute audio posted on our parish website, and disconnected from its liturgical moorings, but I’m aware this happens all the time. It’s daunting and nerve-wracking, and anxiety-producing. ..which is why I rarely sleep well on Saturday nights. And while I suspect there is a wide variance in what folks want when they talk about quality preaching, my guess is no preacher in our Church sets out to be poor at the work. Here endeth my apology.
I don’t expect my reply to generate any substantive discussion, and to be honest, my response probably sounds grouchier than I had intended it to be, but writing it reminded me of how difficult the preaching task is, and how tempting it can be to succumb to a learned hopelessness about the discipline altogether. After all, in a culture shaped by sound bites which are, these days, becoming more and more like “sound nibbles” part of the challenge of preaching is the realization that folks in the worshipping assembly are often working as hard to pay attention to the preacher as the preacher is working to make sure what they’re listening to is worth the attention being paid.
A little later in the morning, I saw the announcement regarding the death of one of my pastoral heroes — Eugene Peterson. I first became acquainted with Peterson’s writing over thirty years ago when I read his essay, “The Unbusy Pastor.” In this essay, Peterson talks about the three things a pastor can do if, “I’m not busy making my mark in the world, or doing what everyone expects me to do.” Those three things are: being a pastor who prays, being a pastor who preaches, and being a pastor who listens. Again and again, those three practices have challenged me as I continue to grow into the pastoral vocation. As Peterson implies, these three practices are intertwined — each informs the other — and yet, his quest to be a particular sort of preacher was a lifetime in the making.
He writes, “I have no interest in ‘delivering sermons,’ challenging people to face the needs of the day or giving bright, inspirational messages. With the help provided by scholars and editors, I can prepare a fairly respectable sermon of either sort in a few hours each week, a sermon that will pass muster with most congregations. They might not think it the greatest sermon, but they would accept it. But what I want to do can’t be done that way. I need a solid drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture. That takes far more time than it takes to prepare a sermon.”
Amen. And thirty-plus years on, I might add — a sermon arising from such an intense engagement with the Scriptures might not rise to the top of a Google search.